Scribing in Difficult Situations

Techniques and tactics for problematic scribing. September 9, 2004

I've been operating my solo shop for two years now, after working mostly in-shop for my previous employer for five years. Installing is my weakness, but I don't have any reliable installers to sub to.

I read a recent thread regarding scribing versus scribe moulding, and agree that scribing is preferred, but have found that scribing in many situations can be very time consuming/expensive, so I'm hoping for some advice in difficult scribing situations.

I'm very fast at scribing an end panel to an out of square or wavy wall, but here's where I have problems… Where a cabinet run butts up to a wall on both sides, or where a cabinet (including entertainment centers and linen cabinets) is recessed into an opening. I've found that the wall may be narrower or wider, etc. as the cabinet is set back into position. How do you scribe in these situations? Also, what tools do you use to scribe (belt sander, hand plane, power hand plane)? Do you cut ends at an angle so there is less to trim?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor M:
With units that are wall-to-wall I do the following. There are typically columns on wall units of some sort.

I'll make the end column an "L". The vertical part of the "L" is screwed to the cabinet from the outside so there are no visible screws. I then make another "L" to screw to that, so I have two double "L's". With doing that, I leave a space of 1/4" between the two "L's" for a piece of 1/4 ply to slide in. I cut that piece short so it sits a bit in, so when I install the unit, I can take an awl and force the piece of 1/4" to the wall. I secure it in place by putting an 18 gauge pin nail through the face of the column and then filling it with a putty stick.

When I do units that fit into a niche, I never do inside scribes. I make some sort of column, whether it be flat or fluted, and return that to the face of the wall.

From contributor D:
It all depends on the expectation of the customer. If I am bidding against other shops who do not scribe and the customer is not willing to pay the extra for scribing, then they get scribe molding and none have ever complained. If they want to spend the extra money it takes to scribe a face frame or end panel to the wall, I am happy to do it.

If a cabinet goes wall to wall and is a one piece unit, I generally do a detached face frame and install the box first, then scribe and fit the face frame and attach it after it is fit. In doing that I can install much bigger cabinets much easier than if the face frames were attached. If the area is too large for one single cabinet, I just leave an extra 1/2 inch on the wall side stiles and scribe them to fit.

From contributor K:
I build face frame cabinets. On wall to wall units I always make the cabinet 1/4" smaller than the wall to wall length. I then pin scribe moulding (3/16"x3/4" with rounded or eased edge) to face frame and it covers the gap.

From contributor B:
In the past I allowed 1/4 of play between walls. Until I meet an inside corner off almost 1/2. Some drywallers really pile the corners up. Now I go about 1/2. My face frames hang over 1/4 each side.

Has anyone used a router attachment to scribe countertops to walls? I saw one that looked useful. It has got to be faster than the old pencil and belt sander.

From contributor M:
I would never use a molding to cover up a gap where the panel and/or cabinet meet the wall. In my opinion, it looks cheap, like you screwed up, so you decided to put a piece of molding there, instead of doing it right. It's not that much more work to scribe things so they look nice. I personally wouldn't even offer it as an option. I would just spend the time scribing it and do it right.

Think about it - if you were having someone do custom furniture for you, are you as a customer going to think that putting a molding there is the professional way to go?

These people are paying good money for a good product, and I think they should get what they pay for. When I think of moldings being put on cabinets to cover up gaps, it reminds me of Home Depot kitchens. If it works for those people who do it and their clients don't complain, then more power to 'em.

From the original questioner:
I already stated that I prefer scribing, but I find it nearly impossible to do in boxed in situations where the cabinet sits way back in. Please give me some pointers on how you do this. You said "It's not that much more work to scribe things so they look nice." Please enlighten me!

From contributor M:
I never build cabinets so I need to scribe into an opening. I always bring the cabinet flush, and put some type of column on it, so I can return that to the face of the wall and belt sand the return so it meets the wall.

From contributor T:
All of the above posts are valid ways of scribing a built-in.

The kind of scribe depends on a lot of things - the type of construction, the area that it must fit into, what the customer expects. So it is good to know all of the techniques instead of just one.

If the customer wants shoe molding, then you give them shoe molding. If a reveal at the wall looks best, then you give them a reveal. If your cabinets are all flush and face-frame construction, then you give them a flush scribe and so on.

The main idea is that you can not fit a 120" wide unit into a 120" space. That is understood. So the idea is to have the cabinets stop short of the walls and use one of the mentioned techniques.

In your case, you do not want to use moulings, so the best technique is: attach a loose 'L' shaped finished cleat directly to the end wall and allow the slightly narrower cabinet to slip in front of it, allowing for the variable reveal at the wall.

Another way, my favorite, is to use a loose casing on the ends that are attached with biscuits. You center the cabs, then scribe the loose piece exactly to the walls and apply some glue to the biscuits and press them on and you can just about walk away. A nice, flush, clean look.

You do want to keep in mind that you don't want a cabinet door to be closer than 1" to any wall so that when you open it, the handles or the overswing of the door does not hit the wall.

Also, the same techniques work when scribing under a soffit or ceiling.

There are also different ways to scribe the base, but the best that I have found is to leave a 1/4" loose finished face that is cut a little taller than the kick so you can scribe it nicely to the floor, and then glue or shoot a couple of finish nails. Of course, on carpet this is not necessary.

All of the techniques are valid and there is no one better than the other. You just pick the one that is best for the project that you are working on.

From contributor I:
I scribe practically everything that touches a wall or ceiling.

After about five years of fooling with a belt sander for scribing, I wised up and bought a 7" Dayton disk grinder ("sidewinder" style - 7000 rpm) which uses stick-on disks, 60 grit. That tool removes material fast. You can see exactly where you're going and follow a curved line easily.

Now, 25 years later, I can't imagine how I got anything scribed with that clumsy, slow belt-sander. Scribing with a belt sander is like cutting up sheet stock for a kitchen with a saber saw.

If cabinets are wall-hung using the rail and bracket system, the boxed-in scribing is easy because one case can be pulled out before scribing. After grinding off the required material, the last case is slipped in like a book on a library shelf. This only works with three or more cases. Sometimes, with one or two cases - like a wall cabinet over a toilet - I just go ahead and use some scribe - 1/8" thick x 5/8" wide with a rounded edge.

A person has to know when to stop building monuments and just finish up and go home, with a check in pocket.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comments from contributor A:
How about ripping the panel that meets the wall at a 30-45 degree angle? Then you can use a hand plane to shape the thin edge to fit the wall. So much easier than removing a 3/4" edge with a belt sander.

Comment from contributor L:
We use L shaped scribe pieces on the ends of cabinets where they meet walls which I like to keep on the same plane as the doors and drawer fronts. Sometimes we install face frames in the shop and we leave the ends 1/4" to 1/2" long.

To fit them between walls (this works for countertops as well) we take strips of 1/8" - 1/4" plywood, scribe them to the walls, and hot glue them together creating an open rectangle that is the exact outline of the space where we need to install the cabinet. Then we lay this over the face frame or counter and you have an exact template to cut to.

I always back cut with a jig saw so that when I am scribing to the line I do not have a lot of material to take off which allows me to be more accurate. I use a 4" grinder with 30 g sandpaper to scribe. I have also used a Makita 1 1/8" x 21" belt sander which is a great tool.